Orlando Ridout V: In Memoriam

Executive Director Leslie Buhler offers this tribute to Orlando, who died April 6, 2013. A pillar of architectural history and preservation, he was a deeply admired friend to her and others fortunate enough to have known and worked with him. 

Orlando Ridout V on roof
Orlando on the Tudor Place roof.

There are few people one meets in life who stand heads above others. One of those people in my life – as in many others – was Orlando Ridout V. While few outside the fields of architectural history or preservation will have heard of him, all of us will benefit far into the future from his work. For almost four decades, Orlando helped create, shape, define, and advance the study of vernacular architecture, for thirty of those years as chief of field research for the Maryland Historical Trust, a state agency dedicated to preserving and interpreting the legacy of Maryland’s past.

I first met Orlando in 2000 when I began work at Tudor Place. Then-Trustee Al Chambers invited him into the city to meet me and discuss a path forward for the National Historic Landmark house. I was immediately drawn to him — his passion for old buildings was electrifying, his intellect inspiring, and his knowledge of building construction astounding. He was thoughtful, generous of spirit, and full of great stories. He shared his vast knowledge humbly and did not judge the recipient.  From that meeting to this day, he has been my touchstone as I have led efforts to understand and preserve this historic site.
Orlando Ridout V giving Tudor Place tour
Orlando explaining the architectural history of
Tudor Place: He shared his vast knowledge humbly.

In 2001 and 2002, we commissioned Orlando and Willie Graham, his longtime colleague at Colonial Williamsburg, to write a Historic Structures Report for the estate. Their systematic approach greatly advanced our knowledge of the building’s evolution and formed the foundation for the interpretive approach used today. Through endless hours of investigation, examination, and delving into documentary material (including early images), they produced a comprehensive site chronology and a keystone essay on the house’s evolution and architectural importance. From their inquiries, we gained invaluable understanding of the people who lived and worked at Tudor Place over 173 years of ownership by the Peter family.

Several years later, when the stucco was removed from the house, Orlando came to examine the exposed exterior brick. While many of those in the collected group of staff and experts were examining the east wing to identify whether, in fact, it had been a stable and carriage house, Orlando pulled out his notebook and deftly sketched the structure with it horse and carriage entrances. He showed us the difficult-to-discern alterations in the brick that indicated changes made to make the wing habitable. By the end of the day, after close examination of the exterior brick, Orlando’s notebook was full. (For a closer look, click the image below.)


Orlando last came to Tudor Place in early 2012 to examine the construction of the Temple Portico roof while it was being restored. He clambered up 2 stories of scaffolding and ladders to examine lumber and nail-hole patterns. With his usual command of regional construction practices, he immediately helped us understand the challenges facing those who made the domed roof and the construction techniques used to create this highly unusual structure.
Orlando examining nail-hole patterns on the Tudor Place Temple Portico dome, January 2012.

This was just months before he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. News of his illness caused a seismic shock in the architectural history and preservation fields. He was not to leave this world without the recognition he so deserved. In 1979, Orlando had helped found the Vernacular Architecture Forum (VAF), dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of the built environment, and historic architectural resources and their relationship to local culture in particular. In June 2012, its Board awarded him the Henry Glassie Award recognizing special achievements in and contributions to the field of vernacular architecture studies.

Marcia Miller, his Maryland Historical Trust colleague, captured Orlando’s spirit so well as she accepted the award on his behalf, so I will quote from her tribute:

    …His contributions to this field have redefined how we, as a profession, look at buildings. Not content to simply maintain the status quo, he has elevated the standards of our field, continuously working towards bettering our understanding of buildings, refining our documentation standards and rethinking the types of questions we should ask about the built environment.

    Perhaps his greatest legacy, however, is as a teacher and mentor… He gives freely and profusely to anyone who is passionate about buildings, and he is especially dedicated to those who desire to become field surveyors. How many people in our field have learned the basics about nail chronologies, framing techniques, and hardware while spending a hot day in a tobacco barn or cold, snowy day in an abandoned eighteenth century house with him? Benefiting in a special way are his students who took his legendary course, “Field Methods for Architectural History,” at the George Washington University.

    But these examples do not do justice in any way to Orlando’s expansive generosity with the fruits of his intellect and his labor. No matter how elementary or complex the question might be, nor how many times he has answered it before, he always answers with thoughtfulness, unselfishness and modesty.

Orlando’s work in the Chesapeake region included so many historic structure investigations, restorations, and reconstructions. Some of the most notable among the numerous historic sites he analyzed in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina were the Octagon, a William Thornton-designed home in downtown Washington owned by the American Architectural Foundation; Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest; James Madison’s Montpelier; and the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston. His work in South Carolina earned him the Frances R. Edmunds Award from the Historic Charleston Foundation.
In Maryland, his work is legendary, and his public service followed that of family members before him. The Ridout family’s roots in Maryland go back to the 17th century and include two royal governors, members of the Maryland Legislature, and the state’s first historic preservation officer. In 30 years working for the state, Orlando helped compile a catalog of Maryland’s historic resources, the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties, which establishes the basis for all preservation activity in the state and is a model for other states. With his father, Orlando was awarded the Calvert Prize, the Maryland Historical Trust’s highest award for historic preservation.
As prodigious and inspiring as his personal gifts were, Orlando was a prolific writer. With Marcia Miller as editor, he contributed to Architecture in Annapolis: A Field Guide. His other writings include a book, Building the Octagon, which received VAF’s Abbott Lowell Cummings Award in 1990; Architecture and Change in the Chesapeake: A Field Tour on the Eastern and Western Shores, written with Michael O. Bourne, Paul Toart, and Donna Ware; and a chapter in The Chesapeake House, a newly released comprehensive study of early buildings, landscapes, and social history edited by Cary Carson and Carl Lounsbury. His additional studies,papers, and articles likewise provide a rich resource for future generations.
He leaves us the rich legacy of these works and his scholarship, but in himself, more than anything, Orlando was a gift to us all. I will miss him greatly.


Pencils, Paperclips, and Mystery Objects: Sorting the 20th-Century Desk

By Becky Bacheller, Tudor Place Collections Management Intern
The first-floor office is one of the rare rooms at Tudor Place whose furnishings point to a single era rather than a span of time and use. The mansion’s fourth and final owner, Armistead Peter 3rd (1896-1983), worked here into the 1980s, but maintained the room and its furnishings much as his father had set them up in the 1920s. With its natural artifacts and memorabilia, book-lined décor, and veridian walls, the room by design continued to reflect the tastes and interests of Armistead Peter, Jr., (1870-1960), who worked here throughout his adult life.

Armistead Peter, Jr.’s, partner desk: Made by W. K. Cowan Company (Chicago, 1894 to 1916), ca. 1900.

In fall 2012, my internship in collections management focused entirely on the Office — focused, in fact, on a single piece of its furniture, the ca.-1900 Colonial Revival partner desk that anchors the room. The cataloging project required inventorying the contents of the desk, manufactured by W. K. Cowan & Company of Chicago as a replica of George Washington’s presidential desk in New York City. It came to Armistead, Jr., on November 3, 1912, as a gift from his wife, Anna “Nannie” Peter (1872 – 1961).

Sorting through its accumulation of office supplies proved to be a way of sorting through the past century. Like virtually everything in the museum, the desk – down to the interiors of its drawers: pens, pencils, stamps, and stationary supplies – had transferred intact to the Tudor Place Foundation after Armistead 3rd‘s death. Its contents were catalogued then and left undisturbed. For preservation reasons, it recently became necessary to re-house them, and that is where I came in. My internship project was to sort, label, and rehouse the drawers’ contents, photographing, measuring, and cataloguing them in the museum’s PastPerfect digital collections database as I progressed.

Working drawer by drawer, beginning with the wide central one (open in top photo), I first carefully removed each object from a drawer and placed it for transport in a blue board tray lined with archival tissue paper. I next determined its accession number. Many, like the pencils pictured above-right, were already tagged; these I matched it to physical (printed) accession files as I removed them.

I next photographed each item or group of items to document them and their condition. An abundance of loose tags from the last cataloguing exercise persuaded us that each object this time should be physically numbered. I practiced labeling my own pencils first with the collection labeling kit before venturing (carefully!) to number each of the Peter family’s writing utensils, as shown below:

I hand printed each accession number on a clear base of B-72. Based on the objects’ color, I selected  contrasting inks for maximum visibility. The numbering process is reversible, and I took care to mark the numbers in the least noticeable place on each object. While handling them, I wore nitrile or cotton gloves.
To re-house the collection, I created a cradle of archival tissue paper for each object and then placed the artifacts in customized dividers. Six trays could be stacked in one box. These were temporarily stored under my worktable but are destined for eventual on-site storage with the rest of the collection.

Archival tissue in stacking trays
served to hold the desk contents.

Here is my Collections office work station,  
located in a former bedroom.

After three weeks of cataloging, the first drawer was complete. A total of 41 objects, including pencils, dip pens, mechanical pencils, and fountain pens, all  made during the first half of the 20th century, had been photographed, catalogued and re-housed, filling four sub-divided trays.

One of the things I love about projects like this is the exposure to historical objects and the knowledge gained in figuring out what each one is and how best to describe it. A fat blue pencil became one of my favorite finds in the collection, because of its resonance from an earlier project I had worked on.

As a curatorial assistant researching WWII-era pencils for an exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, I discovered Bob Truby’s Name Brand Pencils, an entire website devoted to the subject. I learned then that pencils from the Second World War period have distinctive cardboard or plastic ferrules as a wartime adaptation: Metals were needed for the war effort, so hard cardboard or plastic had to substitute for the nickel or brass usually wrapped around the eraser’s base. Although interested to know of this distinction, I was unable to find an example during my Smithsonian tenure.

One year later, in the Armisteads’ desk, I came upon a pencil with a plastic ferrule:

Not everything I found looked familiar, however. The center object in the picture below stumped me at first. On either side are colored pencils “sharpened” by peeling off the wrapped paper. Asking around, I learned from Tudor Place Artist-in-Residence Peter Waddell that the non-writing utensil among them was a tortillon, used by artists to smudge or blend marks.

Peeling pencils (top and bottom), I recognized. But what was the middle object from the pencil drawer, whose ends peeled away without exposing a writing mechanism?

One drawer contained hundreds of unused pen nibs, cloth pen wipes, and
eyedroppers for ink and feather quill pens.

During my fifth week, I found a metal tray full of paper clips. That presented an interesting numbering challenge, as they differ in type and also did not match previous catalogue records. I sorted each type into a separate archival bag to forestall further corrosion and researched the correct name for the contents of each bag. For example, one style, designated a “square clip,” is actually an “ideal” or “triumph” clip according to Early Office Museum, another specialty web site I consulted.

Paper clips: How to sort and number?

By type, of course, and name.

By the end of my sixth week, I had catalogued more than 100 objects. Below you can see the entire contents of the Cowan partner desk, catalogued and re-housed:

What’s in your desk? Armistead Peter 3rd’s contained everything from writing implements and 
sealing wax to drafting tools, photographs, and even a pocket watch.

It included a box of unused book plates in excellent condition. 

Ephemera and manuscript material from the desk, including these plates, were transferred to the Archive.

This assortment of rubber stamps also was stored in the desk. Some had deteriorated: For example, the rubber face of one had melted off the wooden handle and adhered to the bottom of the drawer. Others had unidentified surface crystallization.

The stamp collection numbered over 38 items. During my fourteenth week, I finished cataloguing it. While most of the stamps bore predictable labels like “paid”, “received”, and other terms associated with business transactions, one read simply “pigeons.”  Armistead Peter, Jr., raised pigeons at Tudor Place, selling them to friends and family. He presumably used this stamp to help organize files pertaining to this hobby.

Manicure set.

The unique manicure set at right was another unusual find. I initially took it for a pocket knife, but the delicate spoon and pointed blades — for cleaning ears and getting beneath fingernails — ultimately revealed its true function

At the conclusion of my project, I had digitally catalogued over 330 objects and re-housed them in four archival-quality boxes. I feel confident these fragile and tiny objects will be preserved for future visitors and scholars, now that they are safeguarded in improved storage condition. The internship was a fantastic opportunity to experience many facets of historic house collections management, while peering through the “drawers” of the 20th century.